Ok, so this may be a bit controversial and unpopular, but religion and faith are not the same thing. Religion tends to put a foggy haze over things and can keep you from really reaching the next level of your faith. I’m getting ready to talk about my favorite personality trait/characteristic of Jesus, but before we can get there and really let it hit us, we first need to understand that religion can sometimes be the enemy of faith.
Overall, there isn’t anything that is really wrong with religion, per se. However as I said, it can kind of cloud things a bit and keep you from seeing some of the really important parts of faith. Religion is about an outward show of your dedication to Jesus through outward practices, public declarations of faith, publicly giving of your time through, etc. There’s not much wrong with that. Except that faith is about the inward display of your love for Jesus through your heart.
Now about that foggy haze, what exactly does that mean? Have you ever driven through the fog? It’s not easy to see the road ahead of you. Sometimes, it completely blocks out anything more than a few feet in front of you. It can be hard to tell the difference between a bus and a building. Well, the church is physically in the world and sometimes the world slips into it and makes its own little changes. The Catholic Church, for example, doesn’t pray directly to Jesus or God. Instead, they pray to Mary. The church believes that people are too sinful and unworthy of approaching Jesus and have decided that they should pray to his mother to go to Jesus on their behalf.
I’m pretty sure that I haven’t missed that part in scripture where Jesus tells his disciples “Talk to the hand ‘cuz the face ain’t listenin’ to all y’all sinners.” There is not a single story in scripture where Jesus turns a person away. On the contrary, He actually scolded his disciples for trying to keep some children from Him in Matthew 19. He then proceeds to teach that “the kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:14)
He even gave us an example of what prayer is supposed to look like in Matthew chapter 6. It begins with “Our Father,” not “Jesus’ mom.” Jesus is telling us to pray directly to God the Father. There is even a bit about forgiving us of our sins in the Lord’s Prayer, so He knows that we are sinners and still tells us to go to God in prayer!
Some churches refuse to serve communion to people for different reasons. Again, the Catholic Church at one point wouldn’t allow anyone who was divorced to have communion, unless the marriage was annulled. Some churches only allow members to receive the Holy Sacraments. Other churches don’t practice communion, or only do it on very rare occasions when Jesus Himself told us to “do this in remembrance of me.” (Luke 22:19) There was never a stipulation that only certain people were allowed to partake in the bread and the cup. It’s a symbol of following Jesus and accepting the New Covenant that He offers and is available to all.
Let’s not forget about who actually plotted to kill Jesus. It wasn’t the Romans, it was the religious leaders. The priests of the Temple wanted Him dead! He constantly rebuked the religious leaders because they didn’t have faith in their hearts to back up the religious practices that they acted out. They outwardly showed everyone how strong their religion was, but didn’t really know who God truly was because it was all for show, their hearts weren’t changed or filled with God. They thought Jesus was a sinner for healing a man on the Sabbath. That was enough to drive them to call for his execution from the Roman governor.
How many wars have been fought over religion? How many hundreds of thousands of people have been killed in the name of religion? How many times has religion been an excuse to imprison, torture and/or kill? Jesus NEVER once told anyone to kill in His name, but He called people to love.
Religion has a way of making you think that just because you act, you are saved and on your way to heaven. But unless you allow Jesus into your heart and allow him to soften your heart and turn it towards God, there is no way to truly be saved! Action is meaningless unless your heart is in it. If you’re acting to show the world your “faith” but you aren’t acting because your heart is filled with His love, that is religion and is just for show. That’s the same as the religious people speaking loud prayers for everyone to hear that Jesus warns us about.
My pastor has said many times that “Good people don’t go to heaven, saved people do” and it is exactly in line with what Jesus Himself has said. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). The only way to get to God is through Jesus and if you truly accept Jesus into your heart and follow Him, there is no way that your heart won’t be changed. It will be softened and turned towards God and your actions will be more Christlike. If you have been baptized and are still the same person, something isn’t quite right. Sure, it’s not an immediate change, but your heart begins to soften. You choose more and more to step away from sin, sometimes even having to make drastic changes to help keep yourself away from the temptation. You begin to love more, even when sometimes you don’t want to. That’s how I started to notice the change in my heart.
Working retail had definitely hardened my heart quite a bit. Especially since there’s collections involved in what I do as well. I hear the same stories day after day. The same lies over and over. And I drifted to being truly cynical and not believing anything that anybody told me anymore. I became much less compassionate.
After my baptism, it took several months, but I began to notice that more and more I could empathize with people that I dealt with on a daily basis. I began to be less annoyed by some of the stories that I was told and began to have faith (though not in all stories or people) that more of what I was being told may actually be true. I even began to relate to some of my customers. I’ve been through bankruptcy and have had difficult financial seasons and many of my customers are going through the same right now. I began to remember what it was like for me. When a customer gets upset and yells and carries on, I am more likely to understand that what they are going through made me irritable once too. That’s how I started to notice the change in my heart that following Jesus had begun.
Everyone is different. Your exact change may be much more immediate and in your face. Or it could seem like it’s never happened, because it’s been so subtle. I think that the harder and further away from God your heart was to begin with, the more immediate and drastic the change. Many addicts who come to know Jesus have a very immediate and drastic change. Their entire life begins to shift. Someone who has been going to church their entire life, but hasn’t entirely given themselves to Jesus may have a less noticeable shift. Their lives may not have been as much of a train wreck and the changes are more subtle, like being more kind and patient.
The act of baptism is a religious act. If you don’t truly let Jesus in and follow Him with everything that you’ve got, then it’s not an act of faith. But, if you let Jesus in, that act of faith changes who you are so completely that it will amaze you when you look back in a year or 2 or 30 and see how much you really have changed.
Going into a country where Christianity is illegal to minister to people, that is an act of faith. Religion would tell you to fill the offering plate to help support someone in the field doing God’s work, while never going out to help feed the homeless in your area. Faith would tell you to share your story with a coworker or neighbor. Religion is putting some crosses up in your house and never talking about how Jesus has changed your life. Faith is pouring your heart out to God each and every day and sharing the deepest, darkest, most painful parts of yourself with Him. Religion is listening to the pastor pray on Sunday and waiting until next week to hear someone pray again.
Religion puts Jesus on such a high pedestal that He is completely unapproachable for us. Faith tells us that He is with us! Jesus regarded people’s faith very highly. He spoke about faith regularly. Remember the mustard seed? Or how about the Roman centurion? He never praises the religious practices of the pharisees.
Like I said, the two are different. Sure there is a little bit of religion in faith and a little bit of faith in religion, but if you have to choose, choose faith. Faith is love and God is love. Choosing the path of faith will put you on the path towards God.